Dyfed Powys Police fail to justify the council meeting arrest and detention

There is still no good explanation for the arrest and detention of Jacqui Thompson.

A week ago today Dyfed Powys Police responded very quickly to call by Carmarthenshire Council to attend an "incident" at the Council Chamber.

The "incident" was, in fact, the local campaigner and blogger Jacqui Thompson quietly filming the council's casual dismissal of a petition. There is no evidence that she was disruptive or interrupting proceedings. It was just that the councillors did not want to be filmed while transacting public business.

The police acted promptly when called by the council. The council have stated that they did not ask for her arrest, only her removal. The police decided to arrest Ms Thompson anyway. They also decided not to just eject her form the council's building but to take her to a police station where she was kept in a cell for two hours.

One would expect that the police, having made the decisions so swiftly to use their coercive powers of arrest and detention, would be able to explain their decision-making. After all, arresting and detaining someone at a public council meeting are significant decisions to make in any liberal democracy.

However, one would be wrong in this expectation: for over a week later Dyfed Powys Police still seems unable to properly explain what they did and on what legal basis they did it. Such a failure of accountability is at best worrying.

Last Friday, two days after the "incident" I sent Dyfed Powys Police the following questions:

1. In what possible way is filming a public council meeting a breach of the peace?

2. Can the police confirm that filming a public council meeting is not actually an arrestable offence?

3. Why was she taken to a police station? And why was she then kept several hours at a police station?

4. Why was she threatened with court if she did not sign an "undertaking"?

5. What possible offence was the police threatening with charging her?

6. Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?

7. Will the police now apologise to Ms Thompson?

8. Can you please name the officers that arrested Ms Thompson?

I did not get a response on Friday, or even on Monday. When I called to chase, the press officers were variously away from their desks, in meetings, or simply not in that day. Sometimes the phone just rang out.

Finally, yesterday afternoon - nearly a week after the "incident" - the following extraordinary statement was emailed to me and simultaneously published on their website:

Response to media query - Incident at Carmarthenshire County Council
Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Two Police Constables were involved in the arrest of Ms Thompson on the 8th June 2011 following an incident at a planning meeting in County Hall, Carmarthen.

Due to the nature of the incident the officers requested Ms Thompson to desist from recording the proceedings and to leave the premises. She refused to do this and acted in a manner which led to the officers using common law powers of arrest to prevent any further breach of the peace. (This is not defined as an arrestable offence - but carries a common law power of arrest).

In order to comply with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1986 all detained people are taken to a designated custody suite, where the detention is governed by a Code of Practice under the jurisdiction of a Custody Officer who decides upon grounds for detention.

A key consideration for the Custody Officer concerns the release of the detained person and whether the behaviour will recommence immediately upon release. An alternative to release from custody would be for the case to be heard at a Magistrates Court where a Binding Over Order could be made.

As part of this process officers sought assurance from Ms Thompson that she would not cause a breach of the peace upon her release. She provided a written undertaking to this effect and she was released from police custody just before 2.30 pm that day.

There were no suggested charges following the incident.

Mr Green asks 'Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?'

The Police would consider the implications of the articles of the Human Rights Act when deciding on which course of action to take.

If Ms Thompson is dissatisfied with her treatment by the Police she can contact our Professional Standards Department, who can advise her of her options.

Let us now take each of these statements in turn.

Two Police Constables were involved in the arrest of Ms Thompson on the 8th June 2011 following an incident at a planning meeting in County Hall, Carmarthen.

According to independent witnesses, there were actually four officers who attended the "incident". It was also not a planning meeting.

Due to the nature of the incident the officers requested Ms Thompson to desist from recording the proceedings and to leave the premises. She refused to do this and acted in a manner which led to the officers using common law powers of arrest to prevent any further breach of the peace. (This is not defined as an arrestable offence - but carries a common law power of arrest).

This is probably intended to be the response to my numbered questions one and two: in what possible way is filming a public council meeting a breach of the peace, and can the police confirm that filming a public council meeting is not actually an arrestable offence.

However, you will see that Dyfed Powys Police does not directly answer these questions. In fact, it would appear that nothing occurred which would constitute an actual or threatened breach of the peace.

In order to comply with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1986...

It is actually the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984.

...all detained people are taken to a designated custody suite, where the detention is governed by a Code of Practice under the jurisdiction of a Custody Officer who decides upon grounds for detention.

However, there appears to be no blanket power to continue detention beyond a time where a recurrence or renewal of the breach is likely. Indeed, as Blackstone's Police Operational Handbook 2011 describes on page 295:

Release may occur at any stage: at the scene, after they have been taken from the scene, or at the police station.

If this is correct, then Dyfed Powys Police appear to have simply got the law and practice wrong.

A key consideration for the Custody Officer concerns the release of the detained person and whether the behaviour will recommence immediately upon release. An alternative to release from custody would be for the case to be heard at a Magistrates Court where a Binding Over Order could be made.

Again, this seems to be wrong. There appears to be no reason for someone arrested for threatened breach of the peace to be taken to a police station and put before a custody officer.

As part of this process officers sought assurance from Ms Thompson that she would not cause a breach of the peace upon her release. She provided a written undertaking to this effect and she was released from police custody just before 2.30 pm that day. There were no suggested charges following the incident.

According to Ms Thompson, she was pressed to sign the undertaking on pain of being detained longer. Ms Thompson has said:

Without a solicitor present, I was then threatened by three police officers who said that if I didn't sign an 'undertaking' not to film/record any more meetings I would be kept in overnight, I am not sure now whether they could even keep me that long.

If Ms Thompson's recollection is correct, then the police officers seem to have misdirected themselves that filming/recording a council meeting by itself was a potential breach of the peace that she could undertake not to repeat.

And then there is this gem:

Mr Green asks 'Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue?'

Who is this curious "Mr Green" who suddenly appears in a formal and general press release, without any explanation or introduction? One can perhaps guess, but its unexplained inclusion does rather suggest the statement was not put together with any sufficient care or thought.

The Police would consider the implications of the articles of the Human Rights Act when deciding on which course of action to take.

No reason has so far been disclosed for us to believe that Dyfed Powys Police had any - or any proper - regard to the articles of the European Convention of Human Rights or the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 as they arrested, handcuffed, and detained Ms Thompson for seemingly no good reason.

If Ms Thompson is dissatisfied with her treatment by the Police she can contact our Professional Standards Department, who can advise her of her options.

One rather hopes she will do so.

It is clear that Dyfed Powys Police believed (or was told) that filming a council meeting was by itself both a breach of the council's rules (which it was not) and a breach of a peace capable of being repeated. In my opinion, it seems Dyfed Powys Police overreacted to the council's complaint and misused their powers of arrest and detention.

If the conduct of Dyfed Powys Police was unfortunate in the arrest and detention, it is certainly troubling that they are still unable to adequately explain what seems a misconceived and illiberal use of their coercive power.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR